In 1868, as now, the Middle East seemed to be a place where fortunes could be made from the region’s mineral resources and from its central location between Europe and India. The Persian empire was slowly recovering from decades of invasion, civil war, banditry, and plagues. A new monarch, Naseroddin Shah, made a good impression in the capitals of Europe, which he visited frequently beginning in 1873. Yet “the well-protected realm” remained mysterious. A lack of information about its people and geography challenged international investors, who still relied on John Chardin’s accounts of 150 years earlier. They were greedy for up-to-date insights into the country. Albert Houtum Schindler was their providential man.
The Book of Esther, one of the historical books in the Torah and the Old Testament, is known as a story of community, discrimination, and human ingenuity. It’s core to the Jewish holiday of Purim, with singing, feasting, and other merriment. And it’s unique as one of the few books in the Bible that doesn’t mention God. At all.
It’s amazing that art historians like Robert Hillenbrand got to study the “Great Mongol Shahnama” at all. 500 pages of Firahdosi’s epic poem, with 300 illustrations, in a manuscript whose leaves are as wide as an ordinary person’s arms. Never completed, never bound, smuggled out of Iran by corrupt dignitaries, and separated and padded out by an unsavory Belgian art dealer.
Iran is certainly enjoying a moment through a series of international exhibitions. In 2021, the V&A Museum had “Epic Iran” whose tickets sold out upon release. In Los Angeles, the Getty Villa had “Persia: Ancient Iran and the Classical World”. In 2023, the British Museum has now added, “Luxury and Power: Persia to Greece”.
In the Middle Ages when representatives of different religions met for formal disputations, they did not cite chapter and verse from their own scriptures, knowing full well that their opponents would not consider these sources credible. Instead, they used common sense. They shared many common assumptions about the nature of reality, the sacred and the profane. They mostly agreed that God created the world, and humans had been set inside that world in order to fulfill their destiny. The question was how best to do this, and which religion offered the best guidance for that.
On the Jewish festival of Purim, revelers are encouraged to get so drunk that they cannot distinguish between Mordechai and Haman, the hero and the villain of the Book of Esther. Sobriety is required to appreciate Llewellyn-Jones’s erudite and encyclopedic retelling of the story. By piling detail upon detail, Llewellyn-Jones brings to life the sumptuous feasts and intrigues of the court of Susa, the seat of Persia’s great kings. While a veritable renaissance in the study of ancient Persia has been going on for a while, this is the first time a scholar has used the Jewish Bible as a primary source. The Book of Esther is easily dismissed as a trite, orientalizing fairytale. What if it turns out the author wrote from direct experience of the great king’s court?
Those outside Iran are likely largely unfamiliar with the country’s art and culture of the 19th century, something easily remedied, however, by this very beautifully produced large-format book, packed with splendidly vivid color reproductions and lively analyses.